Kinglists and Archives, Epics and Propaganda: Near Eastern Historiography
(A Background Briefing)
- Early Records
- Introduction to Egyptian and Hittite Documents: The Battle of Kadesh
- Giglamesh: Epic as Proto-Historical Memory
- Complex Artifacts
- Bibliography and Further Reading
- Internet Resources
1. Early Records
In this background briefing we are going to examine records found in the Near and Middle-East. In Sumeria and Egypt these are found soon after writing was developed, certainly by the late-fourth millennium B.C.E., with more than 700 signs being attested in Sumer by 3,300 B.C.E. (Roaf 1996). The earliest records were used for a variety of purposes: to keep track of resources and goods, to record religious doctrines and myths, to celebrate events in the reign of a king, to commemorate victories and other decisive events, even to record treaties made between ancient peoples. Very soon these ancient documents begin to record data that is deeply concerned with the continuous history of these peoples, cities and ‘nations’. They also betray a sense of time, usually preserved as dates within the reign of a king, and often linking these together in kinglists which claim to provide a coherent account of leadership that goes back to the time of the gods. These early distributive civilizations (relying on palaces and temples to distribute goods within a partly centralised economy) were also careful record keepers for administrative and taxation purposes. In many cases the kings or leaders who had documents made seem deeply concerned with recording their name for posterity, so that their greatness might be remembered in future generations. In ancient Egyptian conceptions, the recording and speaking of the name of the dead King, now viewed in a sense as the god Osiris, helped preserve the vitality and health of that king in the after-life.
Yet the question we can ask is whether they are examples of historiography or not, i.e. that they represent an explicit framework of historical analysis linking cause and effect within rational schema. Such documents (whether written on clay tablets, papyri or engraved on stone) are used by modern historians as evidence, and contain a wide range of useful information. But the writing of history is generally agreed to be something much more than listing events or glorifying the reign of a king. History as a discipline, moreover, is generally agreed to include a systematic investigation of events, their causes and the motivations of human societies over time (see Carr 1961; Marwick 1989). It is also requires the collection of data, its verification, and its analysis in relation to specific hypotheses which help provide an enhanced understanding of the past, the present, and to a limited degree makes possible the formation of intelligent hypotheses concerning the future. Generally, historical analysis should also be relatively disinterested, and at least attempt to reveal and reduce its own biases.
One area in which the Egyptians seemed close to this kind of account was in their explanations for the origin of the universe, their religious cosmologies. These explanations, however, do not rest either on immediate observation, nor upon any contemporary records which can substantiate their accounts. Rather, they are closer to a very primitive form of philosophical analysis, though they remain clothed in the symbolic images that make abstraction and generalization difficult. In these mythic cycles, any hypothesis can be answered by the action of a powerful god or group of gods, often linked into family groups, and involved in acts of creation, destruction, and shaping the particular features of the world. They create order and fight chaos, but they are far from omnipotent. As such, most of these 'explanations' are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, falling thus outside scientific or historical notions of proof (for this narrower definition, even problematic for modern historians, see Popper 1991; Ayer 1990). As noted by R.C. Dentan, the Egyptians were concerned with historical events, to some extent with their causes and explanations, but fell short of a systematic or 'scientific' explanation because of 'their belief that the conditions of their existence as people had always been, and always would be, governed by the gods, whose will and purposes were utterly inscrutable.' (Dentan 1955, p32) This is perhaps some exaggeration: humans, through knowing and honouring the gods, could enroll their help, deflect their anger or negligence, or at least by acquiring wisdom accept the limited fate offered humans in this world. For example, the maxims found in Egyptian Wisdom texts and the ‘Instructions’ literature (principles that a man might want to pass on to the next generation) seem a mixture of moral injunction and fatalist acceptance of humankind’s limited lot (see for example The Instruction of Amen-Em-Optet, in Pritchard 1973a, pp237-245). As a balance to this, the advantages and practicality of justice are noted in various Egyptian 'wisdom' texts, e.g. Ptahhotep, lines 84-98 (in Frankfort 1977, pp99-100; see further Pritchard 1973a, pp234-237). However, the cosmic order, the gods and cultic practice remained the underpinning and guarantor of this sense of justice (Morenz 1973, pp12-15).
Religious myths, of course, were often used to explain events known to have happened in the past. The Memphite Creation Myth (or The Memphite Theology of Creation) gives an unusual precedence to Ptah as a cosmic creator god and thus provides a reason for the sudden emergence of Memphis as the capital of Egypt after the establishment of the First Dynasty (in Pritchard 1969, pp4-6; see extracts in Prtichard 1973a). It is in their articulation and use of these myths and legends that Egyptian literature is often at its most inventive and insightful, but it does not really approach a consistent historical analysis. This does not mean that their statesmen and scribes were not accurate observers, nor clever 'molders of the truth'. By the New Kingdom they were able to record events and treaties in some detail, though official documents were always shaped by the need to show the Pharaoh in a positive religious and social light. Some of these accounts seem to have been among the most 'factual' in the ancient world, e.g. the documents dealing with The Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites, and with subsequent treaty arrangements (see below). However, these documents provide clear evidence of a conscious use of the 'facts' for political purposes; they are in fact quite sophisticated examples of propaganda supporting the traditional and religious prestige of the Pharaoh Ramses II (sometimes transliterated as Ramesses II).
The Mesopotamian cultures, including those of the various city-states of the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian cultures, were also intensely aware of their past and were careful record keepers. Kinglists, chronicles, annals, legends, contracts and omens had been inscribed on clay tablets or stone, and were often recopied for consultation and greater security of preservation. Here too, historical events were often interpreted as the outcome of divine actions. Stories such as The Curse of Akkad and Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur are presented as examples of divine retribution for failed human actions. Likewise, the fall of kings is often explained by divine intervention. The theme of the 'Weidner Chronicle', for example, is 'the divine punishment of disobedient princes' (Albrektson 1967, pp102-103). It follows from this that the gods can be appealed to and intervene to cause positive outcomes. In the Legend of Sargon (in Pritchard 1969, pp119), the hero king regards his success as at least partly due to the favour of the goddess Ishtar. Similar themes are found in Hittite records, such as the Plague Prayers of King Mursilis (the second, 1339-1306 B.C.E.) who states that the gods should be pacified because he has confessed his fathers' sins (in Pritchard 1969, pp394-396). The Hittite Ritual Before Battle likewise call upon the intervention of the gods in their favour (Albrektson 1967, p37).
From these diverse records two themes emerge: that the gods operate as key movers in history, and that they often act because of the wrongs done by men. The gods are seen as taking revenge and asserting a moral role in establishing some kind of order, which acts as a non-explicit form of social justice. Historical events, then, are often understood as part of a religious and moral story, and therefore remain closely allied to mythic forms of expression and explanation. In such a climate, comprehensive historical accounts do not emerge, as noted by Adam Watson: -
2. Introduction to Hittite and Egyptian Documents: The Battle of Kadesh
Egyptian historical documents go back at least as far as the late fourth millennium B.C.E. with the representations on the Narmer Pallet, which go back to a founding king, King Narmer. Likewise, a huge body of official documents (kinglists, decrees, pronouncements) and literature (poetry, religious texts, wisdom documents, liturgical ‘dramas’) already existed by Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period, though many extant examples come from the New Kingdom and Late Periods, including examples designed to imitate or refer back to earlier dynasties (see Lichtheim 1973; Pritchard 1973a; Murray 1962, pp225-252). Likewise, we even have Egyptian ‘diplomatic archives’ such as the Tell El Armana letters, which give a substantial insight into the events of the 14th century B.C.E. (a selection can be found in Pritchard 1973a, pp262-277). It was also clear that by this time scribes in Egypt could operate across numerous languages and scripts, e.g. translating between Akkadian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Hittite and later on Aramaic. Many of these texts do classify as complex historical documents, but as we shall see, they do not provide a systematic or critical account of historical events. Rather, they are particular ‘readings’ or narratives made for particular functions and audiences. We can test this by looking briefly at a major series of events that shaped Egyptian-Hittite relations in the 13th century B.C.E. and see how they are handled in the sources.
By the 16th–15th centuries B.C.E. Egypt had come to view Syria and Palestine as key strategic corridors that could either threaten or maitain Egyptian security. In summary: -
The most important battle between these two powers occurred at the town of Kadesh on the Orontes, just to the north-east of the important Phoenician town of Byblos. This battle probably occurred in 1274 B.C.E. (Gurney 1990, p27, alternative datings include 1286/5 and 1300 B.C.E., depending on different link points for Egypt’s New Kingdom chronology, which can vary from 10-26 years, see Akurgal 2001, pp88-89; Santosuosso 1996, p429, though relative chronologies within a reign are quite solid). This was early in the reign of Ramses II, who as a relatively new king may have wished to establish his own prestige, both within Egypt, and in the region of Palestine and Syria. It has been suggested that the ". . . battle of Kadesh resulted from the defection of Amurru to Egypt. While the Hittites wanted to bring Amurru back into their fold, the Egyptians tried to protect their new vassal." (Dollinger 2007).
This specific conflict was also caused by ‘ambiguity’ over control of strategic routes that focused on Kadesh, i.e. the Beka’a Valley, the upper Orontos River (and its crossing points), and the Eleuthoros Valley that led towards the coast (Santosuosso 1996, p428). Kadesh was of some strategic significance since it lay on one of the easy routes into Syria from the coast, and was a suitable place for the Hittites to block the Egyptian advance. It had also been a vassal city of the Hittites, and Ramses II may have been attempting to change this situation by a show of force in the region. As noted by L. Cottrel: -
It was before Kadesh that a fierce battle occurred, with Ramses II and one of his army units (the Division of Amon) being attacked by superior Hittite forces. With the aid of reinforcements from the coast, perhaps special units and elements of the Ptah Division (see Breasted 1906, pp125-157; Santosuosso 1996, p432), and apparently due to the personal bravery of the Pharaoh, the Hittites withdrew from the field (see Dollinger 2007 for maps of the battle). The heroic tone of Egyptian claims can be found in the following sections from The Poem of Pentaur, as preserved in Papyrus Sallier III: -
His majesty shone like his father Montu,
when he took the adornments of war; as he seized his coat of mail, he was
like Baal in his hour. The great span which bore his majesty called: "Victory-in-Tebes,"
from the great stables of Ramses II, was in the midst of the leaders. His
majesty halted in the rout; then he charged into the foe, the vanquished
of Kheta, being alone by himself and none other with him. When his majesty
went to look behind him, he found 2,500 chariotry surrounding him, in his
way out, being all the youth of the wretched Kheta, together with its numerous
allied countries: from Arvad, from Mesa , from Pedes , from Keshkesh,
from Erwenet, from Kezweden , from Aleppo, Eketeri , Kadesh, and
Luka, being three men to a span, acting in unison. (in Breasted 1906, III,
Section 306ff, access via http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/kadeshaccounts.htm#rem1)
Documents from years 8-21 of the regnal years of Ramses II are not numerous. During this period it is likely that the Hittite King Muwatallis died, and that an estrangement occurred between the general Hattusilis and the new king, Urhitesupas (= Urhi-Teshup), who was his nephew and had the throne name Mursilis. Eventually Hattusilis 'banished him across the sea' and completely removed his enemies at home, thus taking the throne as Hattusilis III (Sturtevant & Brechtel 1935, pp79-81; Akurgal 2001, p95). Ramses II may have pledged to support Urhitesupas (Schmidt 1973, p177), and it is possible that the deposed king had taken refuge in Egypt (see Akurgal 2001, pp94-95). During this period of instability in the Hittite realm, Ramses II waged war in southern Canaan, not far from Beth-shean, where we find a basalt stela recording that he 'made to retreat the Asiatics' (in Pritchard 1969, p255; Schmidt 1973, p177). It seems likely that Ramses II may have been seeking to influence the internal politics of the Hittites, whether to support the weaker party, or to use such leverage to reach a more amiable accord with the Hittites in return for some understanding over Syria and Palestine.
Clauses in the later treaties cover such possibilities, including the idea that the Pharaoh shall guarantee the chosen crown prince of the Hittites on his throne if the current king should die (see Pritchard 1969, p200; see further below). Bearing in mind that Hattusilis III had only won his throne after a revolt against the designated royal successor and after a hard war, this draws Egyptian policy directly in Hittite affairs (Schmidt 1973, p114; Apology of Hattusilis, Section 11, lines 66-79 in Sturtevant & Bechtel 1935, p77)
A Hittite document (Hattusilis on Muwatallis' War Against Egypt), may contradict the Egyptian version, though the particular battle is not specified: -
In any case, by 1258 B.C.E. comprehensive defensive treaty arrangements had been made between the two powers (though there were also two earlier, less complete treaties, Gurney 1990, p63). The agreement included a guarantee that each would ensure the accession of their proper heirs, enforced the extradition of fugitives, and made terms of equal friendship as brothers (Gurney 1990, p63). Thirteen years later this was further strengthened by a marriage between Ramses II and the eldest daughter of the Hittite ruler, the woman being given the Egyptian name Maatnefrure (Akurgal 2001, p99). This suggests that by this time relations had greatly improved between the two regional ‘superpowers’ (Gurney 1990, pp28-29).
It seems likely that some mutual accommodation must have been made after the Battle of Kadesh, but it was not a Hittite surrender - as far as we can tell they still held the town of Kadesh itself and territory to the north. Indeed, O.R. Gurney argues that:
A slightly different interpretation, still denying an Egyptian victory, is possible: -
It is clear that even such detailed documents have a commemorative function. In the Egyptian case they suggest a need to show the Pharaoh in the time honoured fashion as a glorious conqueror, smiting his enemies, protecting Egypt from all enemies, fearful and gracious in victory. On the other hand, treaty records do seem to show a need to preserve the details of a contract between two leading states, a document powerful enough to be acted upon and the form the basis of a future peace. Such treaties were guaranteed by oaths, curses, and invoked the gods as witnesses (Gurney 1990). Thus, they were also a type of covenant that ensured order, linking them back to mythic concepts of justice and balance.
Cuneiform documents of Assyrian traders in Hittite lands date back to as early as 1900 B.C.E. while royal Hittite texts from as early as 1600 B.C.E. (Gurney 1990, p15). Royal decrees, annals of military campaigns, treaties, oaths of loyalty and letters were sometimes preserved, with some degrees proclaiming laws of succession and elite conduct, plus some legends, myths (e.g. The Telepinus Myth), and ritual documents (see Gurney 1990, pp18-19, p141, pp148-158; see Pritchard 1973a, pp87-91). Documents were often written in Akkadian (an international language for this period), and there is a surprising range of material, e.g. four tables from Boghazhöy concern ‘the training and acclimatization of horses by a certain Kikkuli of the land of Mitanni’, texts with technical terms similar to Sankrit (see Gurney 1990, p86, p104). The gods were usually called on to witness for support these agreements, and in some cases a curse would be laid on anyone destroying or altering a document, perhaps originally a stela but copied on a tablet (Gurney 1990, p141). A wide range of other material was found in these Hittite archives:
3. Gilgamesh: Epic as Proto-Historical Memory
In the case of the epic of Gilgamesh we have a very different form of memory, one which at first seems far removed from Graeco-Roman history writing (see the Sandars 1987 and George 1999 editions). It has been viewed as one of the world’s primary epics, and thus often contrasted to Homer’s Iliad or even Virgil’s Aeneid. It story revolves around two heroes, the primordial but now civilized Enkidu, and the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh. After numerous adventures together, Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh goes on an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find the source of immortality, thereby overcoming the ‘lot of death’ that the gods had assigned to human beings. The tale is thus a mythic representation of the human condition, replete with helpful gods, dangerous goddesses, fearful monsters, heroic fights, death and tragedy.
However, the story may retain some elements of transmitted historical memory. There is indeed a King Gilgamesh in the early Kinglists of Sumeria, perhaps at a time that fits some of the conditions listed in the story. Thus:
For the purposes of historical narrative, however, these insights remain problematic. We do have some contextual data that seems to support the type of story portrayed, e.g. the role of warfare and inter-city conflict as a mechanism that may have increased the power of kings and military leaders (Maisels 1993, p278). Furthermore, archaeological evidence from Sumer from the fourth millennium shows that Uruk was indeed already a prominent city with major temple complexes and with trade needs that would have stretched across a large part of the Middle East (see Van de Mieroop 1997, p38; Crawford 2004). The building of walls was ritually and militarily important in Sumeria and Akkadia, and it may be hard to distinguish hard data from the literary convention with dramatic impact (see George 1993; Crawford 2004; Oppenheim 1977). This sense of the universal and symbolic present looking back at the past can be found in the Prologue to the Epic: -
Thus, we have received a complex document that may have had its origins
in historical memory, but one that has also been subject to transformation,
accretion, editing and an unknown degree of invention. The figures in the
story have become symbols that have attracted a wide range of literary
and artistic innovation, while reflecting on the meaning of life and death
in the Mesopotamian world. The document is already a sophisticated and
complex creation that is no mere collection of memories or facts. It cannot
be easily or directly mined for a ‘true’ historical narrative of events.
4. Complex Artifacts
On the basis of these few examples, it is clear that there is a real difference between the kind of records preserved in the ancient Middle East and the writing that begins to emerge in Greece after the sixth century, perhaps a little prior to Herodotus but well shaped as political history by the time of Thucydides, born circa 450s B.C.E. (see Fornara 1988; Kurke 2001).
However, this does not mean that we should view all Graeco-Roman accounts
as ‘genuine’ history (many include ethical, mythic and propaganda aspects),
nor see earlier documents as mere resources to be mined for historical
‘facts’. On the contrary, the religious and political documents of Egypt,
Mesopotamia and the Hittites are already sophisticated constructs serving
particular needs and directed to particular audiences. Some seem to be
diplomatic archive materials (including letters between sovereigns), others
are administrative and legal mechanisms, others commemorative deeds or
events declared in monuments for public memory, some are even royal propaganda.
Each reveals a great deal about the society that produced them, but their
value as historical accounts can only be understood in a properly perceived
5. Bibliography and Further Reading
ABUSCH, Tzvi "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 121 no. 4, October-December 2001, pp614-622
ACKERMAN, Susan. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David, New York, Columbia University Press, 2005
AHARAN, Y. & AVI-YONAH, M. Bible Atlas, N.Y., Macmillan, 1968
AKURGAL, Ekrem The Hattian and Hittite Civilizations, Ankara, Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture, 2001
ALBREKSTON, B. History and the Gods, Lund, 1967
ALGAZE, Guillermo et al. "The Uruk Expansion: Cross Cultural Exchange in Early Mesopotamian Civilization", Current Anthropology, 30 no. 5, December 1989, pp571-608
AYER, A. J. The Problem of Knowledge, London, Penguin Books, 1990
BREASTED, J.H. Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. III, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1906 [Sections of this cn be found at http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/kadeshaccounts.htm#rem1]
BREASTED, J.H. History of Egypt from the Earliest Time to the Persian Conquest, Kessinger Publishing, 2003 [reprint]
BUTTERFIELD, Herbert The Origins of History, ed. by A. Watson, N.Y., Basic Books, 1981
CARR, E.H. What is History?, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961
COTTREL, L. The Warrior Pharaohs, London, Evans Brothers, 1968
CRAWFORD, Harriet Sumer and the Sumerians, Cambridge, CUP, 2004
DAVEY, C. "Quadesh on the Orontes", Buried History, March 1976, pp14-21
DENTAN, R.C. The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1955
DOLLINGER, Andre "Ramses II: The Battle of Kadesh", in An introduction to the history and culture of Pharaonic Egypt, 2007 [Web access via http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/ramseskadeshcampaign.htm]
FORNARA, Charles W. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988
FRANKFORT, H. et al. The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1977
GEORGE, A.R. House Most High: The Temples of Ancient Mesopotamia, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1993
GEORGE, Andrew The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, London, Penguin, 1999
GURNEY, O.R. The Hittites, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990
KURKE, Leslie "Charting the Poles of History: Herodotus and Thoukydides", in Taplin, Oliver (ed.) Literature in the Greek World, Oxford, OUP, 2001, pp115-137
LICHTHEIM, Miriam Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, 3 Vols., Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973-80
LOTHIAN, Alan et al. Epics of Early Civilization: Myths of the Ancient Near East, Amsterdam, Time-Life, 1998
MACQUEEN, J.G. The Hittites, London, Thames & Hudson, 1975
MAISELS, Charles K. Emergence of Civilization : From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture, Cities and the State in the Near East, Florence, KY, USA, Routledge, 1993
MARWICK, Arthur The Nature of History, 3rd ed., Chicago, Lyceum Books, 1989
MITCHELL, Stephen Gilgamesh: A New English Version, N.Y., Free Press, 2004
MORAN, William L. "Ovid's Blanda Voluptas and the Humanization of Enkidu", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 50, No. 2. (Apr., 1991), pp. 121-127
MORENZ, Siegfried Egyptian Religion, trans. A. Keep, London, Methuen, 1973
MURRAY, M.A. The Splendour That was Egypt, London, Four Square Books, 1962
OPPENHEIM, A. L. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977
POPPER, Karl The Poverty of Historicism, London, Routledge, 1991
PRITCHARD, J.B. (ed.) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1969
PRITCHARD, James B. (ed.) The Ancient Near East: Volume I, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973a
ROAF, Michael Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Oxford, Facts on File, 1996
SANDARS, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introduction, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987
SANDARS, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introduction, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987
SANTOSUOSSO, Antonio "Kadesh Revisited: Reconstructing the Battle Between the Egyptians and the Hittites", Journal of Military History, 60 no. 3, Jul 1996, pp423-444
SCHMIDT, J.D. Ramesses II: A Chronological Structure for His Reign, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1973
STURTEVANT, E.H. & BECHTEL, G. "The Apology of Hattusilis", A Hittite Chrestomathy, Baltimore, Linguistic Society of America, 1935, pp65-83
VAN de MIEROOP, Marc The Ancient Mesopotamian City,
Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997
6. Internet Resources:
Pharaonic Egypt, 2000-2008 [Web access via http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/index.html and http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/ramseskadeshcampaign.htm
Egyptian Accounts of the Battle of Kadesh can be found at http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/kadeshaccounts.htm#rem1
The Ancient History Sourcebook has an alternative translation of Ancient History Sourcebook of Pen-ta-ur:
The Victory of Ramses II Over the Khita at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/1326khita.html
Images and general data about The Narmer Pallet can be found at http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/narmer.htm
A range of useful materials on the Hittites, including
some translations, can be found at The Hittite Homepage http://www.mesas.emory.edu/hittitehome/
Essays in History, Politics and Culture
Copyright © 1996, 2008 Dr R. James Ferguson